Family Folklore
How to Collect Your Own Family Folklore

The Interview

The most productive family folklore interviews are those that take place in a natural context for the reasons explained at the beginning of this guide: family folklore is a living part of a family and cannot be successfully separated from the everyday activities of that family. This can present problems since it will be impossible for you to be present during every naturally occurring folkloric event. You should make use of such opportunities whenever possible, however. Some common natural contexts are family dinners, picnics, reunions, and holidays. These are the times at which families would tell stories whether or not you are there with your tape recorder. Under these circumstances you will probably not even have to conduct an interview--just adjust the recorder, relax, and participate as you would ordinarily.

If no spontaneous natural context seems to be available, you will have to rely on what is called an induced natural context. The distinction is straightforward. Instead of waiting for a family dinner to occur in the normal course of events, you initiate one. This approach has the added advantage of giving you a degree of control over the situation. For example, you can invite specific relatives who interact well with each other. Try serving foods that you know will bring back memories from the past.

The group interview context, whether natural or induced, has one major characteristic that makes it extremely fruitful. The interaction that occurs as a matter of course serves to spark the memories of the participants. One story leads into another, one interpretation elicits cries of "but that's not really the way it happened at all!" The end result of such an interview will differ greatly from private interviews with the same relatives.

Private interviews can also be either natural or induced. If grandma begins to talk to you about her journey to this country while you are washing the supper dishes, fine-- unfortunately, you probably won't be prepared with a tape recorder. If you wish to privately interview a relative, try not to do so under formal circumstances. Suggest some activity that will allow you to maintain a conversation easily but will help keep the session natural and low key: going for a walk, sewing, baking. If you know beforehand that a particular activity is usually a time for storytelling, schedule your interview to coincide with that event. Familiar surroundings and routine activities will also help to distract the informant from the fact that he or she is being interviewed and will lessen the unsettling impact of the tape recorder.

Every interview that you do will be unique. These brief suggestions should be helpful in most circumstances.

1. Start with a question or a topic that you know will elicit a full reply from your subject, such as a story you have heard him tell in the past. This will give your relative confidence in his ability to contribute something of value to your collection.

2. Avoid generalities. "Tell me about your childhood," for instance, often elicits nothing more than a list of names and dates.

3. Ask evocative questions. Nothing can kill an interview faster than a long series of questions that require only yes or no as answers.

4. Face up to the fact that there will be some information that you will not get. You may be the wrong sex or age. A relative may simply not trust you with sensitive data. If you feel you must have the missing material, you may be able to solicit the help of another relative or friend as an interviewer.

5. Be aware that role switching will occur. You have changed from a son or daughter to an interrogator. Both you and your informant may be uneasy in these new roles. A low-key approach in a natural setting should help relieve some of the discomfort.

6. Show interest. Encourage your informants as much as possible. Interject remarks whenever appropriate. Take an active part in the conversation without dominating it. Learn to be a creative listener as well as a good questioner.

7. Know what questions you want to ask, but don't be afraid to let your informant go off on a tangent. He or she might just touch on subjects of interest that you never thought to ask about.

8. Never turn off the tape recorder unless asked to. Not only does it break the conversation, such action suggests that you think some of your informant's material is not worth recording.

9. Use props whenever possible. Documents, letters, photo albums, scrapbooks, home movies, and other farnily heir- looms can all be profitably used to stimulate memories.

10. Be sensitive to the needs of family members. Schedule your sessions at a convenient time. Older people tire easily; cut the interview off at the first sign of fatigue. Don't slight family members who show interest in your project. Interview them, even if you have reason to believe their material will be of minimal value.

11. If possible, prepare some sort of written report for the family as a tangible result of their participation. Remember to save all of your tapes, notes, and any other documentation that you have accumulated. Label everything with names, dates, and places. Ideally, all tapes should be indexed and transcribed as soon as possible after the interview. You will be more conscientious about documentation if you place yourself in the position of your great-grandchild who, many decades in the future, will be using your project as a source for his reconstruction.

12. Before publishing diaries, memoirs, letters, or other written artifacts, you would be wise to find out about copyright regulations. For example, the writer of a letter owns the copyright, not the recipient nor the present owner of the letter. The same principle holds true for tape-recorded oral history and folklore-- the speaker, not the tape owner, holds all rights to his material. Most family members will gladly allow you to make use of whatever resources you need for documenting the family's traditions, but it never hurts to be prepared with copyright information. The Copyright Office at the Library of Congress will send a packet of information upon request (Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540).